A wee trip to a ring of bright water

We’ve been reading ‘Ring of Bright Water’ recently. It’s ostensibly about otters, but it’s more of an autobiography of the troubled author, Gavin Maxwell, who moved to a house near Glenelg in the late 1950s and documented his life there. Apart from all the wonderful detail about his pet otters and the natural world, the book tells you quite a lot about life in the Highlands at  a time when a surprising number of  homes still had no mains electricity, piped water or even road access (famously inspiring Calum MacLeod of Raasay to build his own). Maxwell’s highland home was remote. He refers to it fictitiously as ‘Camusfearna’, but the descriptions in his books are so vivid that it didn’t take long for people to work out that the location was Sandaig, just south of Glen Elg. Our family love Maxwell’s books, so we thought we should give a visit.

The journey from Broadford starts with a spectacular drive over the Bealach Udal to Kylerhea, a point where Skye is only a short hop to the mainland. A turntable ferry has been chugging across here since 1934, but folk have been negotiating the narrows for centuries. In the old days it was the most important crossing for droving traffic from Skye and it’s thought that between five and eight thousand cattle crossed to the mainland here annually. The first time Martin told me this I didn’t believe him! But it’s true; Skye cattle had to be good swimmers. They were tied in a line, tail to jaw, and calf put into the boat in front to lead them across the half kilometer of sea to the mainland. If that wasn’t enough water can race through the narrows at up to ten knots.

The same vintage ferry still plies it’s way here, and it’s a lovely way to make the crossing to and from Skye. But before you queue for the ferry, check out the otter hide that overlooks the narrows. I have to admit we’ve come to the conclusion that the otters really do hide here but you’ve got a good chance of spotting Victor, the resident sea eagle. 

Beyond Kylerhea and the narrows lies the village of Glenelg and some famous ancient monuments; the Gleann Beag brochs. Another fantastic place to explore if you’re visiting the area. Keep heading down towards the very remote village of Arnisdale and look out for the sign for Sandaig. In Maxwell’s day the way down to his home involved a rough walk with an occasional precarious river crossing. Now it’s a lot easier: there is forestry track that leads almost the entire way down to the bay where Maxwell’s house once stood. Rather poignantly, it burnt to the ground in 1968, along with one of his beloved otters, Edal. All that remains now are two memorials: one to Edal, and one where Maxwell’s own ashes were scattered in 1969. It’s a hauntingly beautiful spot.